For an island nation of 23.5 million people, Taiwan has a surprisingly high publishing output: about 100 active publishers offer approximately 40,000 new titles annually. But market conditions supporting such impressive title output have been deteriorating. Between 2012 and 2015, Taiwan’s total book sales dropped 46%, from $1.14 billion to $617.9 million, although sales seems to have stabilized in the past year. Much of the decline is due to bookstore closures and had little to do with e-books, which account for less than 4% of the market.
The number of registered bookstores went from 2,603 in 2007 to 2,192 in 2015. Last year, only 1,492 were still in business. The ongoing disappearance of bookstores raised an alarm that went all the way up to the island’s Ministry of Culture. Until then, the government had paid scant attention to the book retail business beyond collecting taxes.
“The ministry, set up four years ago, is now looking into ensuring a thriving and healthy indie book retailing and publishing industry,” said Yingliang Liao, chief executive of the Taiwan Association for Independent Bookshop Culture. “One major goal, I think, should be to stop further store closures and put an end to the domino effect.”
TAIBC is a four-year-old nonprofit organization whose joint presence at the 2017 Taipei International Book Fair with the Indie Publishers Association was partially funded by the ministry. The 60-member association, according to Liao, “is not about profit or self-interest.” He added, “Our members are bookshop owners as well as individuals who love books and want to see a vibrant and thriving indie bookselling community.”
Currently, new titles in Taiwan are typically offered at a 21% discount off list price; older books have lower discounts. Taiwanese booksellers and publishers have been talking about fixed book pricing, a strategy to prevent large retailers from driving indie bookstores out of business, since 2007, and the ministry—new to the issue—has conducted several polls to gauge public sentiment. But for Liao the introduction of fixed prices would need to come with a campaign to educate the public about the benefits of such a change. For now, the government has not set any specific deadline for fixed book price laws to be passed.
Gi Liu, chairman of the 31-member Indie Publishers Association of Taiwan, said that the public needs to be shown that price is not the only reason to buy a book. “Fixed pricing to stop heavy discounting and price wars is going to be beneficial for publishers, ensuring fairer competition and a more stable book market. However, with the long history of heavy discounting, price is now the index in book purchase. So we need to change this perception, to make sure that a book is measured not by its price tag but by the intangibles—the content, value and impact to the reader.”
This, according to TAIBC’s Liao, may be a challenge. “Our examination-based educational system needs to be revamped to encourage more reading for knowledge and leisure. Reading habits should be a personal choice, and not something coerced in order to pass exams,” Liao said, adding that this could be accomplished by getting the public in the habit of visiting bookstores, which requires a higher concentration of bookstores throughout the island. More stores would provide accessibility, proximity, and awareness—three factors that Liao believes are crucial to promoting visiting bookstores.
“There must be more space for bookstores in public areas—bus terminals, train stations, museums, for instance. Legislating lower rental fees, as it is done in many European countries, would go far in helping a bookstore to continue operating and to incentivize new store openings,” added Liao, pointing out that indie booksellers also need to tweak their operational model with innovative ideas and activities, including more opportunities for author-reader interaction. “Driving traffic and keeping consumers in the store is crucial.”
For Liu, the indie publishers association’s monthly pop-up book fair is one way to get closer to the reading public. “But we are still shaping our identity as an association, and defining the meaning of ‘indie.’ We currently consider a five-person publishing operation an indie, or when a publisher specializes on unique topics such as LGBTQ [issues]. What we offer collectively, which is the most important aspect, is a wide-ranging list that provides nonmainstream reads to enrich and widen reader perspectives. ”
The government, added Liu, “is considering tax exemption for indie publishers, which is certainly helpful. Scrapping the 5% GST [goods and services tax] on book purchases would be even better for the whole community.” As an association, he noted that “we have a lot to learn from the U.S., for instance, where its indie publishing community is thriving with significant market influence, and is able to reach the public without relying on chain stores. But first, we have to make reading exciting and attractive again in the midst of massive social media distraction.”